The Westminster election is being held against the background of increasing sectarian division on the ground, and the breakdown of the Good Friday agreement with little hope of its resurrection and will inevitably be another sectarian headcount.
On one side it is a contest between the UUP and the DUP to determine which party will emerge as the dominant party of unionism. There is little doubt that the DUP will win this contest easily. It is not even ruled out that David Trimble’s UUP could lose all of its Westminster seats and take a mauling in the local council elections, which are being held on the same day, as well.
On the other side of the sectarian divide, Sinn Fein, the party linked to the IRA, is likely to make gains at the expense of the SDLP which, until recently, had been the main nationalist party. The killing of a Catholic man, Robert McCartney, from the Short Strand area of East Belfast, by members of the IRA and the subsequent attempts by republicans to cover this up, has alienated a section of Sinn Fein’s support. However the SDLP are not seen as an alternative, especially by working class Catholics, and Sinn Fein are still likely to emerge as clearly the largest nationalist party.
In other words the election will likely produce the same sectarian outcome that led to the collapse of the Assembly, except even more so.
The only candidate outside of the four main parties who has any chance of making an impact is hospital campaigner, Dr. Kieran Deeny, who is running in West Tyrone opposing the decision (taken by a Sinn Fein health minister in the Assembly) to withdraw acute services from the Omagh hospital. Dr Deeny topped the poll for this area in the Assembly election and a good vote for him again would show that it is possible for candidates running on class issues to cut across the sectarian voting patterns.
Although the lack of an alternative means that the election will lead to another sectarian carve up, mainly between Sinn Fein and the DUP, on the ground there is growing disillusionment and distrust of all the parties and politicians.
The Socialist Party are not running in the Westminster election, but are standing four candidates in the local council election. These are: Paul Dale in Enniskillen Town, Tommy Black in Belfast Pottinger, Jim Barbour (leader of the Fire Brigades Union) in Laganbank and Harry Hutchinson in Cookstown Central.
The election campaigns in all these areas are in full swing and the mood that has come across on the doors in all the working class areas, Protestant and Catholic, has been one of cynicism towards the main parties and an openness to the anti-sectarian socialist message of the Socialist Party.
When they were in office in the Assembly the main parties cut jobs and services. The Assembly has not met since it was elected at the end of 2003 and yet its members still continue to take their salaries. Since the suspension of the Assembly in October 2002 it has cost £50 million, £23 million of this in wages to the Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA’s) – yet at the same time £30 million is being cut from badly needed education services.
When they were in the Assembly the four big parties agreed to water charges. Since then there has been a huge groundswell of opposition to these charges and huge support for the "We Won’t Pay" campaign which was set up by the Socialist Party. Now the main parties are trying to say they are opposed to the charges. However it is striking that on the doors very few people are taken in by their "opposition". While they claim to be against the charges all are opposed to non-payment. Sinn Fein had tried to hide its position on this but, during the campaign Gerry Adams has come out publicly explaining why his party will not support the non payment call.
None of these parties represents the interests of working class people, Catholic or Protestant. The Socialist Party stands for the building of a new mass party based on the trade unions and genuine community organisations to represent the interests of working class people and young people.
When it comes to the national question the major parties are really only arguing about what colour flag working class people can be exploited under. The Socialist Party is fighting for a real peace process, not based on uniting right wing politicians, but on bringing the working class communities together in the struggle for a socialist Ireland as part of a democratic socialist federation of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales.
Of the four Socialist Party candidates, Paul Dale, standing in Enniskillen, has the best chance of making a breakthrough. Up until these election an independent socialist, Davy Kettyles, held a seat on the local council. He was the only socialist councillor in Northern Ireland!
Davy Kettyles is standing down this time and has given his full backing to Paul. He recently commented:
“Paul Dale is the anti-water charges candidate. I thank the people who supported me in the past and ask them to now vote for Paul. He will continue to campaign for working people and keep a socialist voice on Fermanagh Council." Davy Kettyles has been out canvassing with Paul as have leading trade unionists in Enniskillen from UNISON and the TGWU.
Socialist Youth, the youth section of the Socialist Party, has been active during the campaign and over the last week a group of local youth have joined their activities in support of Paul Dale
By election day next Thursday, the campaign hopes to have canvassed all 5000 houses in the constituency. The campaign has received a warm response on the doorstep and has had very good press coverage in the local press, averaging at least three or four articles each week, as a quote from a letter to a local paper shows: “On May 5th I will be voting for Paul Dale and I hope many others will join me. Not only to ensure Fermanagh continues the long held tradition of having a non-sectarian voice but also to ensure a voice for real politics is a live and kicking on our local council.”
The other big parties have also targeted this seat but there is an outside chance that the Socialist Party could win. If so, Paul Dale would most likely be the only socialist councillor elected anywhere in Northern Ireland.
In Mid-Ulster, Harry Hutchinson has used the campaign to highlight the anti-water charges “We Won’t Pay" campaign which has organised several public meetings in the area. Harry has a record of fighting against cuts in acute care at the Mid-Ulster hospital as well as organising demonstrations and strikes against sectarian killings in the early 90s.
In Belfast, the sectarian polarisation on the ground is sharper than other areas. The Socialist Party has taken the campaign to all the working class areas, Protestant and Catholic, in the two constituencies which cover much of South and East Belfast.
The East (Pottinger) constituency includes the Short Strand area where Robert McCartney lived and which is the base for the campaign for justice that has been launched by his sisters. The party has canvassed every house in this area and received a good response.
Overall in the two Belfast wards Socialist Party members have sold over 220 copies of the party newspaper, the Socialist, on the doorstep. Twenty people have expressed an interest in joining the party which given the character of the election campaign is an indication of the respect the party has built up. This is reflected in the wider activity during the election campaign where over 1000 copies of the Socialist have been sold in street stalls.
This kind of a response shows that despite the sectarian carve up on the ground, there is a desire to have a party that unites working class people to fight back against the poverty and cuts they face on a daily basis in Northern Ireland.
For the manifestoes of the Socialist Party candidates, go to http://www.socialistparty.net/pub/pages/socialist005/8.htm